There might have been a moment, in the midst of his bike ride across the whole of Italy, when Crotone manager Davide Nicola thought the feat he had promised to accomplish was actually unachievable. His legs heavy, his look discouraged, he might have gazed for a few seconds at the spectacular Italian scenery, before realising he had overcome higher obstacles and finding an unexpected boost. Just as his team did.

Crossing the country on a bike in a 1,300 kilometre trip was just the side effect of one of the most incredible escapes Serie A has seen in years — the manager had vowed to cycle his way from Crotone to Turin, his hometown, if he team achieved safety, at a time when he was probably the only one to believe such an achievement was possible.

After all, back in January the Italian footballing world was unanimous in deeming the last three teams of the table as inadequate. Crotone were amongst them. Together with Pescara and Palermo, they amassed as few as 28 points from 19 matches. As a result of their poor record, even a side like Empoli, boasting one of the worst attacks in Europe – 11 goals scored in their first 20 fixtures – were thought to be sailing towards a comfortable safety.

But then, something clicked. Nicola had spent the previous months trying to get his head around it, in an attempt to revitalise a team coming off a fantastic but complicated season. In May 2015, The Sharks were dominant in Serie B, having outplayed their opponents to seal a historic first ever promotion to the Italian top-flight with three matches to spare. But during what should have been a month of celebration, the highest achievement in the club’s history was marked by a bittersweet moment instead.

Lured by his former club Genoa, coach Ivan Jurić decided his career needed a step forward. With his departure, Crotone lost the craftsman capable of transforming a team whose aim was to avoid relegation into a group of overachievers. He did it by relying on a Gian Piero Gasperini-esque 3-4-3 formation, a tribute to his former coach and mentor, characterised by a high-tempo, offensive style of play.

In general, the feeling was that the strong performances delivered by most of the team were closely linked with Jurić’s tactical and psychological work – a heavy legacy Davide Nicola would have to deal with from day one.

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On top of that, just a few weeks after his arrival in late June, the new coach was faced with a revolution in the transfer market, despite owner Raffaele Vrenna saying “the choice [of appointing Nicola] was a well balanced one, as his style of play is similar to Jurić’s”. However, many key elements of the side that had reached promotion left, not only the offensive stars in Federico Ricci and Ante Budimir, but also defenders Eloge Yao, Mihai Balasa and Giuseppe Zampano, a trio with 84 combined Serie B appearances in the previous season.

In order to replace them, Crotone brought in a number of young prospects alongside more experienced players like striker Diego Falcinelli and midfielder Aleksandăr Tonev. It only took a handful of games to realise the club was now part of a completely different reality, and that the harmony of the previous year’s heroics would be hard to recreate.

They earned their first point in Serie A with a 1-1 draw against Palermo after four matches. The joy of the historic achievement would soon turn out to be insignificant, however, as after 10 fixtures the Calabrian side totalled a measly two points, one of the poorest starts the Italian top-flight had seen in years. The defence, which had lost several cornerstones over the summer, emerged as the main problem, conceding 21 goals in the process. But the realities on the pitch were not the only issues Nicola had to face.

In fact, Crotone had no home. Their 9,400-capacity Stadio Ezio Scida had been under renovation since August 2016, as it wouldn’t meet the Serie A security requirements. For this reason, the club found themselves travelling 600 kilometres for every home game, all the way to Pescara, where the local side, also in the top division, had accepted to loan out their stadium. Devoid of the warm affection of their supporters until October, the team inevitably sank to the bottom of Serie A.

Coincidence or not, following a return to their home, which was a 2-1 loss against Napoli, Crotone snatched a 1-1 draw at Fiorentina before finally securing their first ever win in the top-flight by defeating Chievo 2-0. These small but significant results marked a shift in the season — in the next few fixtures, most opponents would find difficulties when facing the red and blues, with the likes of Inter, Torino, Milan and Lazio securing the three points in the closing minutes. However, by mid-January, the gap from 17th-placed Empoli had grown to 11 points, and The Sharks’ season seemed to lead to an obvious conclusion.

Rather than being a chance to strengthen their squad, the winter market came to bring further discouragement to Crotone, as Davide Nicola admitted that “no one is willing to come here”. In such a situation, where men are more important than players and coaches, the boss decided to cling to a hope only he could see. 

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“Giving up? Don’t joke. What shall we do, we all go home? We will believe until the last hope will fade,” the manager said after yet another loss. Most importantly, owner Vrenna made a choice of paramount importance; faced with the possibility of changing his coach, he decided to trust the work of the man he had handpicked over the summer.

The club’s perseverance eventually paid off as Crotone finally secured a morale-boosting victory which would become a turning point for their season. After a 2-2 draw at Genoa, they went on to beat Empoli in an emphatic 4-1 win that was a statement of intent — the Tuscan side’s advantage was now reduced to eight points and they would have had to fight tooth and nail to fend off a resurgent Crotone. A seven-match winless streak followed up but, luckily for them, Empoli’s form wasn’t much better.

The truth is that results were just a part of Nicola’s plan. The coach had been working on his players’ psychology in the process, as he probably knew the final sprint would be the most delicate and important moment, a time when the favourites can lose their assuredness and minnows can upset the odds. That’s why, following a 2-1 win at Chievo that pushed the club to within five points of Empoli, the manager decided to raise the bar. “If we avoid relegation, I’d be ready to cycle to Turin – it would take between seven and 10 days,” Nicola said before a crucial home match against Inter.

Somehow the magic worked. Suddenly, Crotone unleashed all the energy and belief they had been gathering in the previous months as they defeated Inter 2-1 and impressively put together a seven-match lossless streak. With two games to spare, Empoli were one point above, but their opponents were anything but short of breath after their run — the Calabrian side lost 3-0 to Juventus in a match that would once again crown the Bianconeri as champions, and then came the dramatic final day.

Despite their awful form, which saw them amass as few as four points in the previous 10 outings, the Tuscan side were deemed as the favourites for safety — all they needed was a victory over Palermo, whose relegation had been sealed weeks before.

But this was not of great concern to Davide Nicola, who relied on the fact that Palermo would “want to show all their pride before their supporters”. The team looking for a vital win against Lazio in their final match was, above all else, a group of committed men, with average technical ability but an unprecedented will to sacrifice for each other, overcome obstacles and make a miracle come true to honour a coach who had never stopped trusting his players.

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In spite of striker Diego Falcinelli having led Crotone’s hopes by scoring 12 goals, it was actually an unsung hero who gave the Calabrian supporters their second unforgettable end-of-season party in as many years.

Before bagging a brace against the Biancocelesti and making headlines such as the “Italian Jamie Vardy”, winger Andrea Nalini had only played around 700 minutes in Serie A. Crotone had signed him from Serie B outfit Salernitana, who he joined in 2013 in the Lega Pro, before earning promotion to the second division. Prior to that, Nalini had spent his early-20s working two jobs; while playing in the fourth tier of Italian football for Virtus Verona, he completed his studies and became a welder, then made a move to a bratwurst company as a warehouse worker. “That was my only way, as my wages in amateur football weren’t enough, so I had to find another job to bring some money to my family too,” he said in an interview to repubblica.it.

Ambition, sacrifice and stubbornness: that’s why Nalini was the perfect fit for Crotone, who were trying to achieve the impossible. His two goals, and a third by Falcinelli, sealed a 3-1 win against Lazio. A minute before their game ended, the final whistle in Empoli’s simultaneous 2-1 defeat sparked wild celebrations on the sidelines. For the first time in Serie A history, a club totalling nine points after the first half of the season managed to avoid relegation.

After the match, there was no doubt about where all the Crotone players were headed. There was no trophy to hoist but a man to be carried in triumph — with messy hair and a shy smile on his face. Davide Nicola was taken before the roaring fans. During all the jumping and chanting, he might have taken a moment to look up and thank his little-known assistant, someone few knew.

Almost three years earlier, his 14-year-old son, Alessandro, was crushed to death by a bus. A few days after his side’s safety, the manager would write in a Facebook post: “We’ve been fighting together in this complicated season, but now I know you’re here with me. With your energy, you gave me the strength to keep chasing the impossible […]”

That’s what the press and maybe even Crotone supporters had been trying to figure out — how could a man be so confident. The fact is, when you’ve faced life and its harshest lessons, football, as well as a 1,300-kilometre bike ride, probably don’t seem that scary after all 

By Alessandro Bai    @AleBai20